Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Tropes and Tone: Lorelie Brown's FAR FROM HOME

When you begin to read a romance that draws on a familiar plot trope, do you have expectations not only about what will happen in the book, but also about the tone in which those events will be conveyed? When I picked up Lorelie Brown's RITA nominated short contemporary romance Far From Home and saw that it drew on the "marry for a green card" trope, I was expecting a light, funny read, √° la the film Green Card and other similar romantic comedies that update the marriage of convenience trope for modern times. So when I began to read, I was surprised to discover that Far From Home isn't a comedy at all. Rather than have her two protagonists marry for convenience and then gradually, comically fall in love when they are forced into far more intimacy than a typically dating couple would experience, Brown uses a realistic, even at times melancholy, tone to explore several rather weighty issues: sexual identity; immigration rules and regulations; interracial relationships; mental health and recovery from addiction.

"I would marry you," says Rachel Fizel, the white first person narrator of Brown's romance, in the book's opening line. Rachel makes her joking offer in response to Pari Sadashiv, a friend of a friend who has come to Los Angeles from India courtesy of a H-1B work visa but would far prefer to be an independent consultant than remain with her current employer. Rachel's friends all assume her offer must be a joke; though she doesn't date much now, Rachel spent her teen years seeking approval by sleeping with a long series of guys ("poor vaginal choices," is her wry description of this period in her life [Kindle Loc 289]). But later at the party they are both attending, Pari, a "gold-star lesbian," seeks Rachel out, asking if she's perchance bisexual, and if the "large bills and a job that doesn't keep up" might just be incentive enough for Rachel to change her joking offer into a real one (104).

Rachel suddenly senses that this could be a life-changing moment, just like the moment when she finally admitted to her best friend, Nikki, that she had an eating disorder. Her job at a small studio doesn't really pay enough for her to keep up with the loans she accrued while earning her MFA in film, and it would be nice really to share expenses with another person. Especially a person as self-assured as Pari; maybe some of that young woman's assuredness will rub off on her, Rachel wishes.

Though she's typically reluctant to take chances, Rachel decides that it might be worth her time to go on a date with the elegant, composed, and occasionally minx-ish Pari. A date which quickly leads to an engagement. Which in turn leads to the arrival of Pari's mother, Niharika, from India, intent on planning a large, traditional Tamil wedding. And taking up quarters in Pari's two-bedroom apartment, forcing Rachel and Pari into the same bedroom. And the same bed.

Despite the myriad comic (and painfully stereotypical) possibilities of the above situation, Brown doesn't play her story for laughs. Instead, she allows us deep inside Rachel's head, showing how her distant parents and own "craving to be noticed" and "abhorrence of feeling superfluous" have shaped her starkly judgmental view of herself ("I'm aware that I'm medically still too skinny at the same time that I feel fat as a cow" [791]). And how her admiration of Pari, which initially takes the form of wishing she were more like her confident roommate ("Maybe if I was her, I wouldn't have to be me"), gradually transforms into an appreciation of Pari's intelligence, drive, and love of her own body and the pleasures it offers her. And an appreciation of the ways in which Pari forces her/allows her to pull down her protective guard, showing her real self, rather than the self Rachel constantly constructs to win the approval of others. And, finally, an appreciation of her own budding sexual desire, desire which only burgeons when she can engage in sex with a partner with whom she is emotionally as well as physically intimate.

But falling in love, even when that falling is mutual, puts a lot of pressure on a person. Pressure that Rachel, still prone to the self-doubts and self-hatred common to those who suffer from anorexia, does not want to admit she's feeling. Pressure that only mounts as the day of her wedding to Pari grows closer and closer. Will Pari's family, as tight-knit and loving as her family is distant and cold, accept her if they see that her anorexia is not fully under her control? Will Pari still love her if she's still sick?

Despite (or perhaps because of) thwarting my comic expectations, Far From Home proved a deeply satisfying read, a romance that doesn't shy away from important issues, but which never allows them to subsume the heart of any good marriage-of-convenience romance: how two people who thought only to help one another unexpectedly find themselves falling in love.


Photo credits:







Far From Home
A Belladonna Ink Novel
Riptide, 2016

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Feminism of Pain? Sarah Taylor Woods' HOLD ME DOWN

Daddy fetish and feminism? If someone told me five years ago that I'd be putting those two ideas in the same sentence, I'd have laughed them out of the room. But since returning to romance reading in the intervening years, my eyes have been opened to a far broader spectrum of human sexual practices that my white middle class upbringing ever even acknowledged. And I've learned that the feminism or lack thereof in any sexual practice depends not just on the practice itself, but on the people who partake of it, and their reasons for so doing. So, daddy fetish and feminism? Sarah Taylor Woods, you've convinced me it's possible.

Woods' debut romance novel, Hold Me Down, is told in the first person by Talia Benson, a junior at the University of South Carolina. Talia's been in therapy ever since her mother found her cutting herself in high school, an emotional reaction, everyone assumed, to the messy divorce her parents just went through, to her father's verbal abuse, and to her boyfriend of three years unceremoniously dumping her. Talia knows that she's emotionally a mess, but her reasons for the cutting are far more complicated. Ever since she can remember, Talia's been fascinated by bondage and pain—wrapping curtain cords around her wrists when she was six; playing as many contact sports as she could as a kid and a teen; masturbating to fantasies of being held down by a faceless man who bites her and hits her when she was twelve; asking her boyfriend to tie her up as a present for a teenaged birthday (which led to the above-mentioned unceremonious dumping).

Woods, through Talia, explains in a way I've rarely seen in a romance novel, why pain is so appealing to a masochist:

    "So what is it? Why do you do it?"
     I shrugged. "Because it feels good."
     "What does that mean, 'It feels good'?"
     "You know how funerals make people horny? It's that. It's affirmation. Like I'm reminding myself I'm here and alive and this is all I've got." (1240)

     "But it's like... you want to do this thing, right? A hard thing. You have to work for it, and it hurts. It takes tie and energy and effort. And you get the shit kicked out of you for your efforts—like roller derby, right? and at the end of the day, you see these visible, physical reminders of your ability to take what's thrown at you. To take it and keep going and come out the other side. It almost doesn't matter if you win." (Kindle Loc 1258)


But Talia's fantasies and desires bother her, especially in light of her progressive values:

Never mind that I'd identified as a feminist since I learned the definition of it. I was so invested in determining y own future and making my own decisions and being as good as any man walking down the street—but as soon as I got my clothes off, boss me around, hurt me, threaten me, humiliate me.
     How on earth was I supposed to reconcile that? (2068)


Because of her ambivalence, Talia hasn't engaged in a romantic relationship since high school. And because she's not found anyone at all interested in the same sort of "not normal" desires that she has. Until, at a lunch get-together sponsored by her Archaeology professor, she meets doctoral student Sean Poole:

     Pooley was hot.
     Hot like, Thor moved to Portland and got a job in a logging company hot. Blond hair pulled back into a little knot. Beard. Plaid button-down, solid tie. Flat front chinos, broken-in work books, and—
     Jesus. Legs for days. (135)

Talia finds herself initially tongue-tied by this gorgeous specimen of male pulchritude, but her usual brashness quickly reasserts itself, a combination that catches Sean's attention. And Sean, who always goes for what he wants, immediately asks sassy, mouthy Talia out.

As the two gradually begin to date, it becomes clear that they share a lot more than a love of archeology. Sean's a fairly experienced dominant, a sexual sadist who gets off not just on control, but on marking the bodies of his lovers—biting, bruising, and whipping them. But Sean, who has been taught how to do BDSM safely, recognizes Talia's ambivalence about her own desires, and will not engage in any kinky behavior with her unless she gives her consent first:

     He let me go, and I wanted to slap him. I couldn't stop my hips rolling toward him, pushing back against the door. He reached down and swiped his shirt off the floor. "Someone told me I wasn't allowed to boss her around."
     I gaped at him.
     "And I promised I wouldn't until she asked me to." Grinning, he laid a hand over his heart. "And I am nothing if not a man of my word."
     "Sean."
     "I'd hate to violate your trust." He pulled his shirt back on. "Relationships are based on trust."
     "Oh my God. Sean."
     "Yes, Talia? What is it?"
     I opened my mouth to ask him to boss me around, but for some reason, the words wouldn't form. I couldn't deny I wanted him to. But why? Why this insane urge for him to hurt me and push me around? What would Olly [her psychotherapist] think?
     What would my other think? Where was the independent girl she'd raised?
     Forget all that. What should I think? (1405)

No one's ever suggested to Talia that sexual desires such as hers are "real and normal and attainable" before Sean. And so Talia gradually grows comfortable enough to give her consent, and  the two begin a Dom/sub romantic and sexual relationship, one in which Talia eventually finds herself calling Sean "Daddy" and Sean calling her "little girl." (Given Talia's very real issues with her own domineering father, I had to do some outside reading here to get a handle on why people in Dom/sub relationships might use such language; this article in Broadly helped a lot).

Talia's never been happier in than her unusual romantic relationship with Sean. But Talia's friends and family aren't quite so sanguine. Especially after catching sight of the marks Sean leaves on Talia's body, Talia's roommate and longtime BFF Mallory, her therapist Dr. Oliver, and eventually her mom begin to challenge her belief that her relationship with Sean is a healthy one:

     "But I worry about you," [Mallory] said gently. "I worry that you get so wrapped up in seeking male approval you forget about all the approval the rest of the world is throwing at you.... You know you don't need some human with a penis to make you appreciate how awesome you are. Penises are just really well-irrigated skin tags." (2169-77)


     "I'm not talking about consent," [Dr. Oliver] said. "I don't doubt you're both very interested in what you're doing. That you're both very excited by it. But that doesn't make it healthy. Do you see the difference?"
     I did. God help me, I did.
     "Talk to me," she said. "Tell me what you're feeling."
     "I'm feeling really judged," I said. "And I didn't think that was a thing that was supposed to happen in here."
     "I'm not judging you," she said. "I'm diagnosing you." (3809)


    "How does he talk to you?" [Talia's mother] asked.
     You're not in any position to question me.
     I swallowed. "What do you mean, how does he talk to me?"
     "Does he tell you how to be better? How to do better? Because that's how your father talked to me.
     Wear a skirt.
     I'll tell you when we're done.
     We're going to talk about self-preservation
     Don't drink too much.
     Someone oughta teach you some patience. (4250)

I loved that the narrative didn't just brush off these questions as unimportant, or make out that the people asking them are stupid or uninformed. They all question Talia out of caring, out of worry that her decisions are not wise.

But at the same time, the story, through Sean, offers a counter-narrative:

You are probably the bravest woman I know.... It takes a lot of guts to ask for what you have, and guts to go through with it."
     "Because it's weird?"
     He took a deep, steadying breath, his jaw working under his beard. He said, "No. Because everyone keeps trying to convince you it is, and you want it anyway, bad enough to ask for it. Baby, I need you to know I don't give a fuck about those people and you shouldn't, either. Okay?" (3056)


Talia's not always comfortable buying into Sean's take on her desires. And deep into the story, when up until now her perfect boyfriend makes a huge misstep during their sexual experimentation, Talia's trust in him, and in her own judgment, takes a nosedive.

Where was the line between getting off on someone else's pain and being a fucking monster? Was I rationalizing? Was that something abuse victims did? Justify it with but we're both getting off? Could one-sided violence really be consensual? (2677)

That Woods offers no easy answers to these questions, but ultimately grants her protagonist the freedom to decide for herself what will be her own normal, what best constitutes her own happiness, makes for an unusual, and decidedly feminist, romance.


Photo credits:
Cord around wrist: Claireabellamakes.com
Consent heart: University of Wisconsin-Platteville
Daddy Vanilla card: Etsy







Hold Me Down
(Carolina Girls #1)
indie-published, 2017

Friday, May 5, 2017

What Does "Sex Positive" Mean in Your Community?

Several of my past posts have been inspired from things overheard at the latest New England Chapter of the Romance Writers of America Conference, and today's post is, too. During a workshop on sex positivity in romance, author Alyssa Cole noted that what counts as sex positive is different in different times, and in different places. As a reader and writer of historical romance, the first part of Cole's claim seemed obvious to me: what counts as embracing your sexual self looks a lot different in Regency England as it does in 21st century America. The example that Cole used—that the forced sex in the "bodice ripper" romances of the 1970s and early 80s may appear sexist and regressive to today's readers, but the trope can be interpreted as sex positive when put into the historical context of women's liberation movements and pushback against the same—was one with which I was also familiar.

The idea that sex positivity can look different not just across time, but across communities and cultural groups living during the same historical period, though, wasn't one that I had given a lot of thought to before hearing Cole's words. But of course my idea of sex positivity growing up as the child of white American parents who had grown up in the working class but who had through education moved into the middle class, likely looked a lot different from that of a child who grew up in the Australian outback, or under the Communism of the USSR, or on a Native American reservation during the same time period. Norms of culture vary not just across time, but across social group.

So I'm wondering: what does it mean to you to be sex positive? Have your ideas about what is sex positive/sex negative changed over time? Have they changed as/if you've moved from one social group to another during your life?




Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Queer Community: Cass Lennox's TORONTO CONNECTIONS series

My thanks to SB Sarah at Smart Bitches Trashy Books for turning me on to Cass Lennox's Canadian-set romance series, Toronto Connections. With three books now published, and a fourth on the way, Lennox has penned an interrelated series of love stories about different twenty-somethings' relationships to their own genders and sexualities that in some way fall under the label "queer": characters who feel no desire for sex, but do desire a romantic attachment; characters who feel they were assigned the wrong gender at birth, and take steps to change that mistake; characters who are struggling to put behind them their teenage shame of their queer sexuality; characters who are bi-romantic; characters who like sex, but only "under the right circumstances, with the right person" (Finding Your Feet Kindle Location 2594). As Lennox notes in a blog post about writing asexual characters, "discovering that you run against the grain of culture in a very particular, deep way that seems to really piss (some) people off" is deeply unsettling. Crafting a fictional world in which her characters are in the process of coming to understand that the cultural expectations they've grown up with about sex and romance are not necessarily true, and finding community with a group of friends and with romantic partners who are also working to "unpick the toxic crap" of those cultural expectations alongside them, makes for liberating, and validating, reading.

Blank Spaces, the first book in Lennox's series, centers plot-wise on a Toronto art gallery experiencing a string of thefts. The mystery serves primarily to bring together two young men who otherwise might not have had much reason to connect: Vaughn, who works in the gallery, is romantically attracted to men but has gone on a dating hiatus because he's just not that interested in sex; and Jonah, who works for the company that insures the gallery, and who is known through Toronto's gay bars as a "total slut" because he likes to have sex openly and often, with as many different men as he can. So often in romance novels, a character who has lots of hook-ups and one-night-stands is assumed to be psychologically damaged, only having sex as a way to escape or avoid his/her problems. And a character who doesn't want sex at all is often viewed through the opposite end of the same judgmental lens. Lennox disrupts both of these assumptions by having "a guy who wants nothing but romance, and a guy who wants nothing but sex" fall for each other—and by showing how they craft a workable relationship that does not require either of them to change their sexual practices for the other.

Fav lines:
     "You would seriously rather be single and without sex than in a relationship where you had to have sex?" he asked.
     Vaughn gave him an odd look. "Which would you rather be: celibate or married to a woman and expected to have sex with her? And to enjoy it?"


At first glance, book two in the series, Finding Your Feet, might appear to be a straightforward heterosexual romance. But readers early on learn that heroine Evie, a white English girl on holiday in Toronto, is, like Vaughn, on the asexual spectrum. Unlike Vaughn, though, Evie has already realized that while she is romantically attracted to people of both genders, her sexual behavioral preferences lean towards not having sex with anyone whom she is not seriously intimate with. In fact, she's looking forward to finally meeting other asexuals with whom she's been chatting online in person. What she doesn't expect is to become involved in a dance competition as a representative of Toronto's newest queer dance studio. Or to be falling for her teacher, biracial cute guy Tyler.

For his part, Tyler isn't eager to jump into a relationship, especially after just breaking free of his previous, often abusive girlfriend. Not only insanely jealous, said girlfriend continually policed his masculinity because he's a trans man. But working with Evie, listening to her own difficulties coming to terms with her bi-romanticism and her asexuality, Tyler gradually begins to understand the difference between insta-physical attraction and deeper, more honest love.

Fav lines:
    "I don't think there's another ace participating in this. You're a rare bunch."
     Evie shrugged. "Not really. One in one hundred. It's the same ratio as redheads in the general population" (953)

     There had definitely been bad times for him too, not least heightened by the fact that he couldn't seem to do the girl thing in any way. Hindsight explained all, but at the time he'd felt like someone had given him a stick shift to drive and he only had the instruction manual for an automatic. He could still sort of drive it, but he knew he wasn't doing it right and it felt wrong and made everything just that much harder. (1218)


The third book in the series, Growing Pains, may be the hardest for traditional romance readers to appreciate, in large part because its part-time drag queen protagonist has definitely not internalized the message given to many girls and young women learning to perform femininity: that emotions are embarrassing, and are better when kept under tight control. Gigi and Brock, both white, played secondary roles in Finding Your Feet: Gigi as the out and proud fellow teacher at the dance studio where Tyler works, and Brock as Gigi's teenage crush who broke his heart when the two were caught necking and Brock pretended it had all been Gigi's idea, not his. While working as a cameraman for a filmmaker making a documentary about the dance competition, Brock is stunned by the gorgeousness that is now the chubby boy he once knew as Toby, and wants to do anything he can to rekindle their teenage romance. Gigi, drama queen to the max, makes Brock grovel, and perform the big public apology gesture, before he forgives him for his past transgressions and agrees to start dating him.

At the start of Growing Pains, Brock and Gigi have been happily dating for months, although Brock has been acting rather strange of late. Gigi's sister is about to marry her boyfriend back in their hometown of Maney, and while Brock has told Gigi he most definitely does not want to go back home again, Gigi insists that a real boyfriend would put his own feelings aside and be there for him when he has to face hometown homophobia. Brock, not one for talking about his own feelings, hasn't been able to tell Gigi that he lied when he said he was out of the closet to everyone back in Maney; he also hasn't been able to tell Gigi about the far less public but just as scarring traumas he experienced as a child and teen before leaving his family behind. Desperate to keep Gigi happy, Brock reluctantly finds himself on a road trip back to his own personal hell.

Gigi's hilarious, but he's also a self-absorbed pain in the ass. Which makes it easy to blame him for the way their relationship implodes during the wedding weekend. But Brock, a shy type whose family taught him it is better to keep quiet than to make waves, is also responsible for the disconnect in their relationship. And for the subsequent blowup when he finally finds his voice.

Happily for them both, Gigi's parents are much more supportive than Brock's ever were. I especially liked this passage, where Gigi's mother helps Brock make sense of the "reactive, loud, and seriously self-involved" creature that is Gigi :

     "I love my son deeply, but he can be a total pain in the ass."
     Brock paused, jeans in hand. He looked at her again. She gazed back, totally serious. Okay. Wow.
     "I guess you heard us," he said.
     "A lot of us did. Are you packing?"
     He nodded.
     "I'm not going to stop you, Brock, but please don't think you're unwelcome just because my son can be immensely selfish and shortsighted."
     He let out a bark of laughter. "Should you be saying that?"
     "I raised him, so I'm allowed to say it. I got all of it. Years of singing and dancing and tantrums about stuff I barely understood." She shook her head. "Sometimes the way he swung between loving something and hating it drove me nuts. The way he's so open, so completely free with his emotions, it's an incredibly wonderful and beautiful thing, but it is tiring to the rest of us who maybe don't need to share everything all the time." (2577)

When Gigi finally does get it, when Brock finally explains why he's been shutting him out and keeping secrets, Gigi doesn't apologize, doesn't back down, doesn't grovel. Instead, he explains just what it means to be in a relationship: that he's got Brock's back, just as Brock has always had his.

Other fav lines:

All that, the feminine mannerisms and the occasional male edge freaking got to Brock. He loved how the whole gender thing played... Knowing that under the padding and cloth and mascara and lingerie there was a very toned and hard male body was such a goddamned turn on (1187-1204)

Dudes can be dudes together, even if they're different kinds of dudes (1356) [Gigi at the bachelor party!]


The final book in the series, The Wrong Woman, which features two lesbians in a "lets pretend we're dating" storyline, is due out at the end of May, and will be on the top of my TBR pile as soon as it is released.

I wanted to write about this whole series in one blog post, because it seems to me that Lennox is doing something pretty unusual here: crafting a series that features both homo and heterosexual couples, as well as queer characters all along the different spectrums of sexual behavior, sexual desire, and gender. Am I wrong in thinking that the world of queer romance has been a largely segregated one, publishing-wise, before this? With authors typically writing only lesbian romance, or m/m romance, or gay romance, rather than depicting truly queer communities? If you know of other series that feature romances between character of the same and opposite sexes, AND characters at multiple points along the spectrums of romance, sexuality, and gender, I'd love to hear about them...

Friday, April 28, 2017

Reviewers and Authors: Too Close for Comfort?

At the recent NECRWA conference, RedHeadedGirl, a reviewer from the blog Smart Bitches Trashy Books, gave a workshop on "Reviews: How to Get Them and How to Handle Them." In addition to giving smart advice to authors on both of the above issues, ReadHeaded Girl said something that gave me, wearing my blogger/reviewer hat, pause. I didn't write down her exact words, but it was something along the lines of "I don't think reviewers should let authors know when they've written a review of their work. Reviewers shouldn't have contact with authors at all. Reviews are for readers, not for writers."

RedHeaded Girl's statement gave me pause because I always send out a Tweet to authors, or tag them on Facebook, when I feature one of their books on the RNFF blog. As an author myself, I know I always want to hear when a blogger has reviewed my work, and have always appreciated a quick email or a Tweet or Facebook tag letting me know. As a blogger, I know that authors are encouraged not to join in any conversations, or add any comments, to a blog post about them or about their books, but sometimes an author will tweet me back a simple "thank you," which I always appreciate. And sometimes an author will write me a few more lines, commenting about an issue I've brought up in the review, offering book recommendations, or just expressing appreciation for the serious attention I try to pay to each book I feature on the blog. I've always considered author responses part of my reward for writing a blog for which I do not get paid, and from which I earn no affiliate monies.

But RedHeaded Girl's comments made me wonder about best practices, or perhaps about best ethical practices, when it comes to communications between authors and reviewers. So I'm asking you, my readers, what you think.
If you're a reader, does it bother you that a reviewer informs a writer that she's written about one of her/his books? Do you feel that communication between author and reviewer should be one-way? If reviewers email/tweet/Facebook authors about their blogs, are they crossing an important line between professional writer and fawning fangirl?

If you're an author, do you appreciate receiving a heads-up when your work is reviewed on a blog? Do you feel duty-bound to offer a thank-you when you receive such a heads-up? Is that duty annoying? Onerous? Ethically problematic for you?


Photo/illustration credits:
Book review meme: William Cook
People Who Review for Authors: Nadine Brandes

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Gender and the Appeal of the Male/Male Romance: Alexis Hall's HOW TO BANG A BILLIONAIRE

In the comments section of  my first review of a m/m romance on this blog (Alex Beecroft's Blessed Isle, back in 2013), several commenters chimed in with reasons why they found m/m romance novels appealing, often more appealing than heterosexual romances. For example, commenter Lawless wrote, "It's the ability to bypass the baggage of gender roles so that the characters meet on more of an equal playing field that most attracts me to m/m romance." At the time, I wasn't that persuaded by such arguments; aren't there power dynamics at work in romances with only male protagonists, just as much as there are in books with a man and woman as the leads?

But I'm starting to see this argument in a new light, after reading the first installment of Alexis Hall's new Arden St. Ives series, How to Bang a Billionaire. In a reimagining/retelling of 50 Shades of Grey, Hall makes the classic feminist move—switch the sex of a story's main character, and see if the narrative still makes sense; if it doesn't, said narrative is probably pretty mired in stereotypical gender norms. In Hall's story, female college senior Anastasia Steele changes not only sex, but also sexual orientation and nationality. Third-year Oxford University student Arden St. James, an irreverent, distractible, easily-embarrassed commitment-phobe, first meets his billionaire not by conducting an in-person interview for the college newspaper, but, in irreverent Hall fashion, by dialing him up during a telethon fundraising call on behalf of the university:

"Hello! I'm Arden St. Ives, calling from St. Sebastian's Coll—"
Click.

After enduring a long series of hang-ups, Arden follows the fundraisers' advice to put a smile in his voice ("I made sure I was grinning as if I'd swallowed a coat hanger" [4]) and gets a caller to remain on the line long enough for him to get in a second sentence. And a third. And more. Each less conventional, more argumentative, and more entertaining, than the last. Until suddenly Arden is dreaming about the stern stranger on the other end of the phone line, wishing he could convince Mr. Caspian Hart to telebond, not just teleflirt, with him.

Arden's X-rated dreams come to spectacular, if brief, life when Hart decides to attend the in-person fundraiser to which Arden invited him during their brief call. During which Arden finds himself falling to his knees on a shaded balcony, offering comfort to the controlled, compelling man in the only way he senses Hart will accept it—in the form of sexual submission.

And it was at this point that I really got what Lawless and other m/m fans were talking about, when they wrote about gendered power relations being "bypassed" in the subgenre. In 50 Shades, Anastasia Steele has little to no familiarity with BDSM practices; Christian Grey serves as her tutor to the pleasures and pains of the Red Room. In contrast, Hall's Arden is well-informed, both about the existence of BDSM and about his own "tastes," which lean towards the sexually submissive. But even if Ana had been sexually skilled, and Arden an innocent, the question of why each gets turned on by being sexually submissive feels different when it is asked of a man rather than of a woman. When I pose that question to a woman (or to a female character), I cannot help but also ask the related question: Is a woman simply taking on the stereotypical feminine role when she accepts, or even wants, the role of sexual submissive? Does her desire to do so stem as much from, if not more from, her desire to embody "natural" femininity as it does from any internal, inherent desires? And if it does, is it problematic for her to act on those desires? By acting on them, is she participating in perpetuating, or at least tacitly accepting, stereotypes that insist that women be submissive in all areas of life, not just the sexual?

But when I ask the same question of Arden, or another male character, that question doesn't come weighted with the same gendered baggage. Identifying as male, but simultaneously identifying as sexually submissive, Arden is acting on a desire that goes against the social norm of what it means to be masculine. And thus his desire, his act, comes across as rebellion against, rather than acceptance of, the expected, rather than suspected as possibly collusion with repressive gender norms, as it might have if he were, or identified as, a woman.

Does it matter where one's sexual desires come from? Caspian Hart, mired in guilt for his sadistic sexual proclivities, certainly believes so. But Arden, in his joking, digressive, not quite sure way, offers a different possibility:

     "Those impulses in me aren't. . . that is, they don't come from a good place."
     "Well, neither do mushrooms, but they're delicious in garlic."
     Caspian made a sound that could have been a laugh. "I have no idea what you're trying to say."
     "Just that maybe it doesn't matter where your desires from from? Only that they're there and I. . .um . . .welcome them."
     "But I don't like what they make me."
     "Who says they have to make you anything? What you're into can sometimes just be what you're into." (315)

I'm guessing from other hints in the story that ultimately the series is going to come down on Arden's, rather than Caspian's side in this debate. But would it if Arden had been a woman, rather than a man? Ad if it did, would I be as accepting of it?

Is a cigar sometimes just a cigar? Or does it only have the potential to be a cigar if it is a man, rather than a woman, who is smoking it?


Photo credits:
Feminine stereotypes: Mindscaped







Alexis Hall
Forever Yours, 2017

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Origins of the Alpha Male?

During a workshop discussion on sex-positivity in romance at the recent New England RWA Conference, author Alyssa Cole mentioned in passing that a fellow writer (didn't catch the name) once told her that the term "alpha" had originated not in the study of wolves and wolf pack behavior, but rather from a far less lofty animal: the chicken. And not in studies of male roosters, bossing around a pack of obedient female chickens, but rather from the pecking order of chickens. Female chickens. Yes, that's right. Alpha hens, anyone?

After hearing Cole's claim, I couldn't help but be tickled by the image of a plethora of urban fantasy shifter chicks (of the feathered, rather than the human, variety) suddenly dominating the paranormal romance charts. But her statement also made me intellectually curious: I couldn't help but want to track down that chicken citation, to see if the great irony of hens as the source of alpha-ness in romance could possibly be true.

Zoologists have studied dominance patterns in chickens for more than 100 years, but I couldn't find any references to the term "alpha" in (my admittedly brief foray into) such work. A Journal of Genetic Psychology article from 1968 by Richard Gottier, "The Dominance-Submission Hierarchy in the Social Behavior of the Domestic Chicken," points to Norwegian Thorleif Schjelderup-Ebbe as the first to research dominance behavior in chickens. His dissertation dates from 1921, and was "introduced" into English in 1927, according to Wikipedia. But it is the colloquial phrase "peck order" or "pecking order" which seems to stem from Schjelderup-Ebbe's research, rather than the phrase "alpha male."

The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of both "alpha" (in the sense of "designating a dominant individual, especially one dominant among others of its own sex in a mixed group of social animals") and its gendered derivative, "alpha male," to a 1938 article in the Journal of Comparative Psychology by one J. Ulrich. Unfortunately, a search of the journal's online listings reveals the animals analyzed in Ulrich's study are not hens. But their subject is almost as amusing, when set in the context of romance alpha maleness. The title of Ulrich's study? "The Social Hierarchy of Albino Mice."

Might the word or the term have appeared earlier than Ulrich? A Google Books Advanced search for "alpha male" between 1900 and 1930 brings up no further zoological citations, but does feature several references to the "Alpha Male Quartette" (otherwise known as the Rockefeller Bible class quartette), performing at a rally for young Baptists, for the Michigan Thresherman's Society, and the Illinois State Penitentiary at Joliet.


If anyone out there has any further information about the link between the phrase "alpha male" and chicken (or mice) research, I'd love to hear about it...


Photo credits:
Pecking order: Born Again Farm Girl
Albino mouse: Costume Shop


Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Expanding the Romance Reader's View of History: Alyssa Cole's AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION

In the Author's Note at the end of her historical romance An Extraordinary Union, Alyssa Cole explains why she never expected to write any kind of historical romance, especially not a romance set during the Civil War:

When I first became serious about my writing, I decided that, although I loved reading historical romance, I'd best stay away from it. It would lead to too many feelings to untangle, too much unfairness to wrap up with a happy ending, given the kind of heroes and heroines I enjoy writing. (Kindle Loc 3677)

What led Cole to change her mind? Learning more about the history of African Americans, especially those "I'd never been taught [about] in the classroom—beyond the simplified stories of George Washington Carver loving peanuts and Rosa Parks being tired" (3677). Reading about the histories of real African Americans of the past, Cole discovered not only people who were active participants in the fight against slavery; she discovered a deep desire to share their stories with romance readers, many of whom had likely grown up with the same gaps in their knowledge of the past as she had. By "extending the tropes of the Civil War [romance] beyond 'brother fighting brother' and 'swooning southern belle,' " Cole found herself able to explore the histories of people those familiar tropes typically erase: those of a "darker hue."

The Virginia State capital in Richmond, which in 1861
 also became the capital of the Confederacy
The heroine of An Extraordinary Union is not a swooning southern belle, but a woman who gives every appearance of being a dutiful slave: Ellen Burns, a mute black woman enslaved by the white Caffrey family, whose patriarch serves as a senator in the recently-formed Confederate government. But readers know from the start that Elle is far more than she appears: an intrepid, sharp-tongued spy who uses her eidetic memory and her devotion to justice to ferret out secrets that will help the Union cause.

Born into slavery, Elle and her parents were freed by their white master after he inherited them from his father. So, too, was Mary Bowser, the African-American Union spy upon whom Elle is based. But unlike Bowser, who, after being manumitted, remained in the south working as a paid servant in the Richmond, Virginia household in which she was born, Elle and her family moved north to Massachusetts after gaining their freedom. Bowser became a spy as part of the network founded by her white employer, Elizabeth Van Lew, but Elle is part of a mysterious "Loyal League" run by a man named LaValle, a man whose race is not specified (at least not in this first book of the series). But Cole's story makes it clear that there are other blacks involved in the Loyal League's work. These small changes—far less improbable or jarring than most of the historical anachronisms found in many a historical romance—bring Elle closer to the "kind of heroine" Cole "enjoys writing": a resourceful, empowered, decisive woman who chooses to act in the face of oppression.

The real-life Mary Bowser married a free black man just days before the start of the Civil War. But Cole chooses a completely different fellow to be Elle's partner in spying and in romance: a charming white Scot detective/spy, Malcolm McCall (based on the real life Pinkerton detective/spy Timothy Webster). McCall, sent to Richmond to ferret out whatever secrets he can, ingratiates himself with the Caffreys by putting forth a convincing performance as an aggrieved southern racist, and by wooing the selfish daughter of the house—"all's fair in love and secession," as Malcolm cheerfully tells himself. But it is really Elle to whom Malcolm finds himself drawn.

Though on the surface, Elle and Malcolm seem to have little in common, both have seen firsthand how tyranny can warp both the oppressed and the oppressor. Even so, Elle is more than reluctant to act on her own attraction to the engaging Malcolm. Dallying at all, and especially with a white man, will only distract her from her true purpose. But as the two share rumors and information, they also discuss the frustrations and fears their work, and the state of their country, engender, conversations that bring them emotionally closer. In perhaps their rawest exchange, issues of white guilt and black anger come to the fore, in a conversation that could as easily be held in 2017 as in 1861:
 
   
Timothy Webster, Union spy
 He'd always prided himself as a friend and ally to every man who sought equality, but was that true? Or had he imagined himself a savior instead?
     He shook his head, disgusted with himself. With everything. When he spoke again, his voice was a raw whisper in the silence. "You deserve to be outraged. All of your people do. Why you didn't set this country ablaze a hundred years ago is beyond me."
     Elle jumped to her feet, not very much taller than him even though he knelt and she stood. When she spoke, her fury was constrained in a voice that fairly dripped with annoyance at having to explain something very obvious to him. "Because, unlike you, we don't have the luxury of being outraged. If we rebelled and set half the country on fire, where would that leave us? You think that would make folks see us as more human?
     "Given the way they treat their slaves, maybe it would," he muttered darkly. "Maybe the only way for this country to be cleansed of its sins is to burn them away."
     "What, an eye for an eye?" she scoffed. " 'If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear?' What rubbish." She fixed him with a look that made him regret that the words had even crossed his mind, let alone left his mouth. "The blood of my people permeates the very foundation of this country. Even if everything from the Eastern seaboard to the furthest territory out West was razed to the ground, it couldn't make up for the injustice. And if you think that's what I'm fighting for, what every Negro putting their life on the line to stop the Confederacy is fighting for, then you've misunderstood everything. You've misunderstood me. . . . you can keep your outrage. All I can do is try to make a difference."  (1275-90)


Cole's novel is not without its flaws. The spy storyline tips into melodrama towards the final pages, when Elle and Malcolm uncover a Confederate plan to break the Union blockade of Richmond and rush to escape their suddenly suspicious enemies. And the requirement that a historical romance supply a certain number of sex scenes makes Elle and Malcolm's physical relationship happen a little too quickly to be quite convincing given the dangers of their positions and the importance of their work. But such flaws are minor in the face of the hopeful possibility that An Extraordinary Union just might open the minds of readers spoon-fed the falsities of "Rosa Parks was tired" and "George Washington Carver loved peanuts" to a far more complicated reality: that African Americans of the past can and did take active, and successful, roles in the fight against slavery and oppression.


Photo/illustration credits:
Confederate capital: U.S. Parks Service
Bowser gravestone & drawing: Substantial Music
Timothy Webster: Wikipedia








An Extraordinary Union
A Novel of the Civil War
Kensington, 2017

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

RWA's President's Thoughts on Race and the RITA award finalists

I received the following email from Leslie Kelly, President of Romance Writers of America, in response to my blog post last week about the lack of diversity in the RITA award finalists. Her email said that I might share her response, as long as I shared it in its entirety. I am posting it below, along with my response to President Kelly.



Dear Jackie:

Thank you so much for writing. I read your blog post, and you raise some interesting points.

Diversity has been a huge focus for the RWA board for the past three years. We’ve been working steadily to improve our diversity efforts, both within our membership, and in the marketplace.

I don’t know if you are aware of this, but just within the past few years, RWA has:

·         Established a standing Diversity Committee
·         Released a public apology for a hurtful survey conducted more than a decade ago
·         Filled two open Board positions—by presidential appointment and with board approval—with traditionally underrepresented members
·         Established a Diversity Incident or Complaint form online
·         Established a Spectrum Grant that will fully fund the RWA 2017 conference for diverse authors. This year, three authors were selected from the dozens of applicants.
·         Scheduled a Diversity Summit at RWA2017 with authors and industry professionals to address issues of inclusivity in the industry
·         Written and will soon distribute a thorough survey to go to our members, addressing issues of ethnicity and sexuality

Since you are an officer of an RWA chapter, I’m sure you know there are no RITA “nominees” there are only “finalists.” Having nominees would mean RWA chose books through a nomination process, when, in truth, authors enter their books in the contest. The number of books entered definitely doesn’t equal the number of books published in a year.

As for your statistical comparison, I don’t think it’s particularly illustrative. Just because the racial breakdown of the entire population is xyz does not mean that same percentages would correlate to romance novels. I wish it did, since that would mean the industry was more inclusive of authors of all races, creeds and sexuality. It’s not there yet…but we’re working on it.

That’s why RWA is doing things like standing up for our authors of color when editors from major publishers make discriminatory statements at our conference. It’s why we apologize when we’ve made a mistake, why we founded the scholarship, why we formed the committee, why we provided a safe way for members to report issues or incidents, why we scheduled the survey, and why we’re hosting the summit.

The idea of surveying our members on the races/sexual orientations of the characters they write is interesting but at this time, we are more focused on the details of our members themselves. Knowing who we are serving is the first step in making sure everyone is represented and we’re doing the very best we can for all romance authors. Please be on the lookout for the survey, coming in the next month or so, and please encourage your chapter mates to respond.

While I’m writing, I must add, there is strict policy against self-promotion on any RWA-sponsored loop. Sharing a link to a personal blog—even one regarding a post that might interest other RWA members—could be seen as violating policy. We’d appreciate it if you keep that in mind when starting future threads.

Thanks again for writing.

Sincerely—

Leslie Kelly
RWA President


Note: If you wish to share this email, that’s fine, but please do it in its entirety. Thanks!



Dear Leslie:

Thank you for reading my blog post about race and the RITA finalists, and for writing back to me with your thoughts. My apologies for posting a blog link on the loop; since the blog was not promoting my books in any way, I thought it would not be a problem. In future, I will remember that no blog links are allowed on RWA loops.

And my apologies for using the term "nominee" rather than "finalist" in my post. I see how this usage might suggest (incorrectly) that the racial imbalance in the RITA finalists was deliberate on the part of RWA as an organization, rather than a result of the membership selecting finalists. I will edit my post and make a note of the error on my part.

Thank you for sharing the list of RWA's recent efforts to promote diversity in our organization. I was aware of most of these efforts, and applaud the Board's work in this regard. 

The only initiative I wasn't aware of was the upcoming survey on RWA members' ethnicity and sexuality. I am looking forward to completing it, and will encourage NECRWA's members to complete it as well. I hope RWA will share the results with the entire membership.

The statistical comparison that I offered in my blog post was not intended to suggest that RWA itself is biased, but to point to the larger issue of the industry as a whole not being inclusive. The suggestion with which I end the post—that the romance community is behind the children's literature community in collecting data about the racial and ethnic identities of its authors—is where I hoped to make a positive suggestion for a way to move forward, and for RWA to lead the way in such efforts.

A survey of the membership is a good first step. But a survey is a one-time event, and the issue of diversity is an ongoing concern. Has the Board considered including a question about race/ethnicity on its membership form, and on its submission form for the RITA awards? Such changes would be a concrete step toward collecting "illustrative" data, data that would provide solid facts to back up RWA's efforts toward diversity. And it would also allow RWA to track changes over time, to see if its many efforts toward fostering diversity in its membership are actually bearing fruit.

It would also be relatively easy to include a question on the RITA submission form, asking about the race/ethnicity of a submitted book's characters.

Thank you again for responding with thought and care to my post. I appreciate this opportunity to engage with you and with the Board about RWA's ongoing efforts to foster diversity in our organization.

Sincerely,
Jackie Horne


Note: I will be posting your response, and mine to it, on my Romance Novels for Feminists blog. Thanks!

Friday, March 24, 2017

The white, heteronormative world of romance awards

Earlier this week, Romance Writers of America (RWA) announced their annual list of finalists for the RITA Award, which recognizes excellence in published romance writing. In 2017, the award is to be given in twelve different sub-genres, as well as an award for best first book. Out of curiosity, I checked out the Goodreads listing for each book, to see if I could tell from the book covers and descriptions how many finalists* featured protagonists of color. While book descriptions rarely specified the race or ethnicity of characters within, white characters were the norm on the covers of this year's RITA finalists. Out of the 85 distinct finalists, only 4 feature protagonists of color, with 3 of the 4 featuring POC falling for a white lover. An equally low number of books were written by authors of color: 4 (or perhaps 5 or 6; I was unsure of the race of several authors).

4 books depicted same-sex romances. 3 of those books featured white gay male characters, the fourth a lesbian couple, one white, one Indian-American.


85 Finalists
85 x 2 protagonists per book = 170 protagonists
5 protagonists of color = 2.9%

85 Finalists
4 (or perhaps 6) authors of color =  4% (or perhaps 7%)

85 Finalists
85 x 2 protagonists per book = 170 protagonists
8 non-heterosexual protagonists = 4%


US Census 2014 

White                                                                 77.5%
     Non-Hispanic White                                    62.2%
     (Hispanic White)                                          15.3%
African-American                                             13.2%
Indian and Alaska Native                                   1.2%
Asian                                                                   5.4%
Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander      0.2%
Two or More Races                                            2.5%



Williams Institute Demographic Study on Sexual Orientation

Americans identifying as lesbian or gay:         1.7%
Americans identifying as bisexual:                  1.8%
Americans identifying as transsexual:              0.3%



What's wrong with this picture? And what is RWA going to do about it?

The Cooperative Children's Book Center at the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been tracking the number of children's books written and/or illustrated by African Americans since 1985, and since 1994, similar numbers for other ethnic and racial groups. Isn't it about time someone (RWA?) starts to do the same for romance?


* I used the term "nominees" here in my original post, which is incorrect; the RWA does not nominate books for the RITA award.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Experimenting with Sex: Ruthie Knox's MADLY

I know I'm always in for a feminist treat whenever I pick up a romance by Ruthie Knox. And there are many feminist moments in Madly, the much-awaited second book in Knox's New York series (books in which midwestern women find themselves, and love, in the Big Apple). Some are familiar Knox themes: sisterly solidarity; the sexism that can often hide behind the facade of the "good guy"; the roles that family expects their daughters to play, even after said daughters may have long outgrown them. But the one I want to write about today has to do with sex.

A type of sex, I would argue, that is rarely found in any romance novel, whatever the subgenre. Rather than the seamlessly perfect, always orgasmic, almost effortless sex that is the staple of romance fiction, in Madly Ruthie Knox celebrates sex that is experimental, messy, and, most surprisingly, not entirely successful.

First, a bit about Madly's story. Allie Fredericks, whom readers of the first book in the series met as she was calling off her engagement to her long-time boyfriend on the day of the wedding, is Madly's heroine. Despite the embarrassment (not to mention the thousands of dollars in nonrefundable deposits for caterers, venue, flowers, etc.) of Allie's last-minute dash from the altar, Allie's former fianc√© still wants to be friends. But Allie has more to worry about than whether her "Good Guy" ex is turning into her own personal stalker; Allie's mother has run off to New York on the eve of her thirtieth wedding anniversary. Mrs. Fredericks has disappeared like this several times in the past, but she's always come home again, and no one in the family has ever explained why. But Allie, by hacking into her mother's email, knows the reason (or at least thinks she does). Though impetuous Allie has no plan for how to accomplish it, she knows that it is imperative that her mother come home: "Because I dumped Matt, and my sister moved to New York, and I can't bear for even one more thing in my life to change" (Kindle Loc 403).

But Allie's spying goes awry in Pulvermacher's Bar, where Mrs. Fredericks is scheduled to meet an old flame. To help her hide from her mother, Allie dragoons an unwary fellow bar patron, a man with all the looks and style of James Bond, but, unfortunately for Allie, the heart (and lifestyle) of a stolid conservative financial manager. Too distracted hiding behind the pinball machine tippling whiskey and exchanging confessions about failed relationships with British ex-pat Winston Chamberlain, Allie loses track of her mother—and has no other clue about how or where to find her.

Except that Winston knows the identity of the man with whom Allie's mom was meeting. But since said man is a client, a quite well-off client with some hefty secrets of his own, Winston is not quite willing to help Allie track him down. What he is willing to do is help her find a place to stay for the night. And to share cold camomile tea and "ruthless therapeutic confessions about our failed relationships" with chatty, charming Allie (758). Confessions which lead to flirting, which lead to a jokingly-made bucket list of 10 sex things they've never done and could do together. To help them get out of their respective romantic and sexual ruts.

The first items on their shared list—a thirty-second hug (the length a hug needs to be for oxycontin to release into your system, Allie informs Winston); blowing gently on a neck; spending an hour kissing, keeping one's hands over clothing—are not difficult to accomplish, even with a relative stranger. And as days pass while Allie continues her search for her mother, Winston is coming to feel "like someone she could know without the things that made him Winston infringing on anything that made her Allie" (821). But some of the later items on their mutual bucket list don't turn out to be quite as big a turn-on as the list-writers had originally imagined. Or at least, they don't upon first try.

Especially because, as Winston later realizes "everything he'd written on the list was there for a reason. Not simple, bucket-list, I've-never-done-this-before reasons, but deeper ones that had to do with how he'd been hurt in his marriage, or how he'd hurt his wife" (1635). And the same seems equally true for Allie. For example, during their attempt at item #4 ("everything but"):

     He licked the slickness of her inner thighs, then worked inward bit by bit, savoring her strange and peppery flavor and how soft, how incredibly and unforgivably soft, she felt against his tongue. And then a rougher texture near her clit that he rubbed his tongue over, slow drag after slow drag with two fingers inside her that made her fling her arms wide and clutch at handfuls of sheets and finally turn her face into the pillow and shove it up over her head, her eyes covered, her breath coming fast as she said, "I don't think I can."
     "Do you want me to stop?"
     "No!" The word came out like a sob, urgent and full of feeling.
     "Okay. But I'm going to need more direction."
     "You're doing perfect. You feel . . . there aren't words, but it's so good. I just don't know how to make myself come like this. There's nothing to focus on, or push against, and I'm on my back like a stupid turtle—"
     He kissed her hip bone. Her stomach. Worked his way up to her neck, behind her ear, her cheek, which was when he noticed her eyes were full of unshed tears.
     She was trembling.
     "I can stop," he said. "There's nothing we need to get to. We could put on clothes and watch a film."
     This made her eyes overflow, and she swiped at them with the back of her hand. "I don't want to watch a film, not right now, I just—I don't know what I want. I want to know how to come." She turned onto her side, facing him. He rested his hand at the dip of her waist.
     "I suspect you do know how."
     She hid her face in the bed. "I don't want to have to figure it out, I want to have been doing this for years already, and I'm angry that I wasn't." She lifted her face to him. "I'm so mad, Winston."
     "That seems reasonable. Would you like a cuddle?"
     "No. A cuddle is the last thing on earth I want."
     But she didn't look as angry as she wanted to sound. She looked terribly sad. So he put his arm out, and she tucked herself against his side, her face in his neck.  (1742)


While Allie and her ex had sex on a regular basis, it was never the kind of exploratory, experimental sex in which she and Winston are engaging. And as the two begin to discover, it's not just a lack of experience and familiarity with a particular sexual act that can stand in the way of achieving pleasure via its use, but also the emotional scars one carries with one from other past sexual experiences.

This scene doesn't end with "failure," though. Instead, after talking—not just about Allie's inability to reach orgasm, but also about some of the emotional baggage they're both shlepping around—Winston comes to understand that "it didn't hurt more to admit how much it hurt in the first place. It didn't hurt more to unravel. And once you'd unraveled, you could look around and think, a bit. Discover" (1805).

And try item #4 on the list again. Or skip #4 entirely, and go straight to #5.

But even after the success of #5, not every item on the remaining list goes smoothly for Allie and Winston. They try new things, back away from some, try things that went wrong again, just to see if things might be different at another moment in time, another emotional state of mind.

Experiment. Acknowledge your own feelings, and listen to the feelings of your partner. Be willing to try again, or try something different, if your first attempt goes awry. Or give it all up for a while and connect with your partner on another level than the sexual. These are the expectations Ruthie Knox asks romance readers to have about sex with a loving partner, expectations far different from the "I've never felt like this before with anyone else/this is so amazingly perfect" kind of physical/spiritual intermingling that has become the staple of the majority of sex scene in romance books not just of the past, but of the present, too.

Which is the better fodder for a romance reader's fantasy? First-time perfect? Or try and try again?

As for me, I'll take the Knox version, every time.


Photo credits:
Sex Bucket List: Pinterest
Love never fails: We Heart It
Fall Seven Times: Deborah Tindle











Madly
Loveswept, 2017